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'One platoon, one year, one valley' goes this documentary's impressive
slogan. Such concentrated focus is truly a selling point. This is
vivid, intense, unvarnished stuff, and the two filmmakers won the Grand
Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance this year for their troubles.
Hetherington also won World Press Photo of the Year 2007 for an image
of one of the soldiers resting at Restrepo, an outpost named after
medic Juan Restrepo, one of their first casualties upon arriving at
this dangerous place of daily combat, Afghanistan's Korangal Valley.
The two embedded journalists, Sebastian Junger (of 'The Perfect Storm,'
with a contract from Vanity Fair for coverage) and distinguished
British war photographer Tim Hetherington, are both filming the platoon
off and on all through its 15-month deployment. They don't analyze or
look at a wider context. They're in effect in the foxholes, where there
are no atheists, and this time no military strategists either. What
they show, and show well, is the camaraderie of this American Army
unit, the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade, their
bravery, hard work, humor, and love of one another, and, less emphatic
but also constant, a deteriorating relationship with the local
citizenry. If you are going to make a narrative feature about how
contemporary American soldiers in daily combat look and act, this is a
good place to go, and the images are superb, and bravely shot, at the
cost of physical injury and at the risk of getting shot like the
soldiers. The film has no structure other than the actions of the
platoon, their two big projects being building OP Restrepo, a 15-man
outpost above the outpost that restricted the enemy's movements, and a
foray dubbed Operation Rock Avalanche, during which the troops came
under the heaviest fire; some of them still have nightmares from
The Korangal Valley is a scene in the middle of nowhere with no escape, as the soldiers saw it on arrival -- a place of multiple daily engagements with a hidden enemy. Strategically, this place seems like it was useless. The Korangal Outpost was closed in 2009 after six years, hundreds of US wounded, and 50 US soldiers dead (and heavier losses on the less well-equipped Afghan side). Some US military actually think the Korangal Outpost -- and the outpost of the outpost, O.P. Restrepo where most of the action takes place -- only increased local sympathy for the Taliban.
This is one "context" thing we get a glimpse of, because the film shows moments from a few of the weekly "shuras" when the platoon leader, Captain Keaney, met with local "elders," scrawny men of indeterminate age, often with brightly hennaed beards. He swears at them freely (safe, since they don't know English) and replies unceremoniously to their complaints. He's a combat officer, not a negotiator. At one point one of the locals' cows gets caught up in concertina wire (we do not see this) and the troops have to kill it (and eat it, from what we hear, and a very tasty meal it was). Elders come specially to complain about this, and demand a payment for the lost animal of four or five hundred dollars. Permission is refused for this from higher command and the elders leave with only the promise of rice and grain matching the weight of the cow. It looks as if the Afghans lose face in these "shuras," but the Americans don't gain anything.
Of course there is the inevitable clash when the Americans push so close they kill some Afghan civilians and wound some children. As with all wars against partisans or insurgents, the locals are all implicated. Captain Keaney is chagrined. But the captain -- he and a handful of the soldiers are shown interviewed later throughout the film, commenting on the experience and the platoon's major projects during the deployment -- is proud of the job they did, nonetheless. They gave the enemy a harder time than their predecessors. OP Restrepo, their initiative, gave them a strategic advantage in the valley. And the men were brave, even when they were scared, and they' were kind and loyal to each other.
'Restrepo' illustrates the Chris Hedges line that opens Kathryn Bigelow's similarly intense, visceral, but unanalytical fiction film, 'The Hurt Locker,' "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." Soldiers are shown hooting with excitement and saying that being fired upon is "better than crack," and they don't know if they can go back to civilian life after living day to day with such an adrenalin rush as the Konragal Valley and Operation Rock Avalance gave them.
The festival enthusiasm is not the end of it because 'Restrepo' will be broadcast globally by National Geographic. But, reviewing the film at Sundance, Variety reviewer John Anderson argues, with some reason, that this documentary "needs a story, much like the war. The roaring lack of public interest in what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan is largely due to a failure of storytelling: Tell us what it's about, and then we'll care." Will we? What the story of the US in Afghanistan looks like is being stuck in one place, fighting a pointless war, on varying pretexts, in impossible conditions, like Vietnam. Here we don't see the drugs and demoralization of Vietnam, though they may be there. The interviews give only a glimpse or two of the damage this deployment did on the 29 or so men -- as well as of what a very fine bunch of men they are. Michael Levine, the film's editor, who cut Venditti's great little doc 'Billy the Kid,' deserves much credit for bringing some order to a wealth of chaotic material.
Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
"The horror! The horror! " Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
CNN describes Afghanistan's Korangal Valley as "the most dangerous place in the world." After seeing the powerful documentary Restrepo, I can understand the description, and I can admire an almost new dimension to that type of film: objectivity.
An American company of soldiers spent 15 months in that valley with filmmakers Tom Hetherington and Sebastian Junger recording the soldiers' combat and more importantly their personal reactions. For indeed Restrepo is about soldiers fighting an enemy they can't see, a boredom they can't leave behind, and friendships they will keep forever, depending on how long forever can be in such a hostile environment.
The singular feature of this Oscar-winning film is its attempt to make no judgment about the appropriateness of the war; it just chronicles the lives of young men stretched by fate to an endurance few of us could even imagine. Not that it's all that bloody or manic; it's just that the terror of an enemy hidden by mountains hangs about like a fog to such an extent that when they do kill one far away in the foothills, they rejoice as if they had wiped out a platoon. When the tired soldiers dance to "Touch Me (I Want Your Body)" by Gunther and Samantha Fox, they celebrate life, not killing.
Back to that objectivity: Even a documentary marries fiction when directors choose some images over others. In Restrepo the choices lead me to question how the US could ever win this war, not because that's the directors' statement but because the successes are limited to building a stronghold, Restrepo (named after a fallen comrade), at the top of a mountain among mountains that dare the most powerful army in history to try to win this one when none has ever been won here. Indeed, the army has subsequently withdrawn.
While the fictional Hurt Locker minimized its bloodshed in favor of the representational, Restrepo takes no liberties but goes for the real, which in this case is like waiting around a movie set for something to happen. And when it does, it can win an Academy Award.
How does a soft, liberal-arts civilian like me even approach a document
like "Restrepo"? I don't give myself to blind, reflexive worship of the
military; before, I have reviewed "Taxi to the Dark Side," an
investigation into some chilling crimes committed by individuals in the
armed forces, almost surely with the knowledge and approval of their
superiors. This, however, is a film, shot by two insane journalists who
spent a year with American Army troops in Afghanistan's Korangal
valley, and it portrays men who are different from the rest of us in
that they have faced and survived the impossible.
Outpost Restrepo was named after a beloved comrade killed in action, and it was dug and fortified under constant enemy gunfire. The Taliban just hated giving up the position, and the men describe how they would dig for several minutes, then be forced to pick up their weapons and return fire, and after the gunfight died down, go right back to digging. The outpost is only several hundred meters from a larger base, but in case of an attack, support might as well be stationed in Germany.
The all-seeing documentarians capture the men's brutal physical labor under a constant state of siege and barely-adequate resupply, until violence and discomfort become life's permanent background. The soldiers are forced to go on regular patrols through the countryside, tracking the progress of development projects and trying to build trust among the locals, whose allegiances are never clear. If they are only listening with one ear, if they're only out to hedge their bets between the fighting sides, who can blame them?
The film culminates in an account of a firefight during an offensive called "Rock Avalanche" words that the testifying soldiers cannot say without a shudder. The mission consists of the men being loudly airdropped on a hilltop and moving around valleys and mountains until attacked by the Taliban. They push onwards, trying not to think which step will finally trigger the inevitable ambush. The ambush occurs; the live footage cuts out, and for several minutes, we follow the brutal firefight only through the soldiers' testimony. It is gut-wrenching. The pain and terror of the men who return fire without knowing which of their fellows are still alive and if they themselves will live for another minute are suffocating. Then, the footage is back, and we see a private wailing like a child over the dead body of the unit's favorite commander. If this can happen to the best among us, he says, what chance do the rest of us have?
It is an astonishing thing to contemplate, but even at the end of so much hostile fire, the Americans have the better deal. The young men who passed through the trials are scarred and damaged by their experience, but they knew the date when it would end, and the bird was there to take the survivors back to a better life. The local Afghans' pain has no end. Frightened, grimy faces peer out of gashes in dirt walls. Children hide their eyes, dressed in scraps of their grandparents' clothes. The doorways of their mud shacks open into black pits even in midday, the sun is unable to dispel the darkness. The village elders are a sight from another millennium gnarly, weather-beaten, half-decayed faces that seem to have been chopped out of rotting tree trunks. You could easily give every one of them a couple of centuries, but who knows? They may still be in their thirties. I've had some rough years as a child of the third world, but I can't imagine even a tenth of what these people go through in their lives.
So many excellent films have come out of our latest painful conflicts "Restrepo," "Generation Kill," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Gunner Palace" Almost all of them have been financial failures. Who wants to spend ten dollars to get depressed and emotionally drained? What exactly are we supposed to feel at the end of "Restrepo"? Not hope. Maybe futility, weariness and an incredible desire to think about something else.
I wondered if the place I saw in "Restrepo" really exists on the same planet as the Metropolitan Opera. Will its misery ever end?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Interesting to note how out of touch the average American is with its
own military, as is expressed by the litany of repetitious
back-slapping preceding comments like "awesome" and "wonderful" and
"outstanding". IMO, these comments reek of incredulity and are not only
naive, but are indicative of a thrill-seeking audience seeking a
vicarious experience from reality-based versions of "Saving Private
Ryan" or "Blackhawk Down", albeit with little or no comprehension of
what is actually going on, let alone viewing our military in action
with a critical eye.
That said, as a former 11B20 and civil affairs soldier, there were a few scenes that made me cringe:
1) In a country where the per capita income is less than $500 per year, and where a man's cow is a man's livelihood and transportation -- an Afghani farmer would regards his cow the same way we regard our own pick-up truck or car here -- this particular unit (2nd Platoon, B Co. 2-503rd AIR, 173rd BCT) couldn't come up with a measly $400 to compensate the farmer for the cow they had eaten, choosing instead to use the flimsy pretext that since the cow got caught in their perimeter wire, it had to be "put down". I guarantee you, this will come back to haunt us on another day, at another time, on another battlefield albeit with the same people, as it will probably be one of the reasons why this particular village and their descendants will continue to nurse a grudge against us for next 1,000 years or more. We should've nipped it in the bud when we had the chance and paid the pittance sum for something we basically stole. Bottom line: Poor leadership and lack of cultural sensitivity and empathy will be our undoing there.
2) In the regular meeting with the tribal elders -- the weekly "shuras" -- the villagers brought up the fact that innocent civilians and family members had been killed by ISAF/Coalition forces. The unit's C.O., Captain Kearney, instead of offering his condolences and apologies like a normal human being would -- in addition to doing his job like he should've done by duly compensating that family in accordance with what ISAF forces are authorized to do -- instead chose to dismissively ignore their complaint and flippantly told them to "forget about it" and that they "need to move on," as if he were telling an ex-girlfriend to f&%$ off.
Not only did he write them off completely without expressing any sympathy or attempt to show any empathy whatsoever, Captain Kearney put another nail in the coffin of the U.S./Afghani partnership in that embattled country, as it is highly likely that such insensitivity and lack of remorse by an American officer toward an Afghani villager won't be forgotten anytime soon by that family or village for at least another 1,000 years.
Again, this was just another example of another incident where we could've and should've nipped it in the bud by using common sense, human decency and blood money to win back the population. Also, this particular unit erred by big time by not having a full-time C.A. (civil affairs) officer attached to this unit to interface between the C.O. and the indigenous population. (Infantry officers, like Capt. Kearney, make poor negotiators.) Bottom line: Poor leadership and a lack of cultural sensitivity and empathy will be our undoing there.
Then, to top things off, in the behind-the-scenes footage, Captain Kearney returns to Ft. Benning and where he not only gets a promotion to Major, but is basically rewarded with a highly coveted posting with the elite Rangers. As he awaits orders, we are shown a glimpse of Kearney's family life, as he continues to play with his little boy and catch up with his wife as if nothing has happened.
So for certain, Major Kearney, with a family of his own, could imagine how the Afghanis in the Korangal felt about losing a family member -- but in fact, and incomprehensibly so, he didn't or couldn't, as he failed to show even a modicum of remorse, or even a de minimus amount of sympathy or empathy to their plight. Having said that, how are we supposed to win this war if our country is being represented by arseholes and hypocrites like that? In actuality, the futility and hopelessness of the campaign that this documentary captured should've inspired a different if not more befitting title like, "God Help Us."
This is where documentary filmmaking becomes serious. Whatever you are
expecting out of this film, chances are you will get a whole lot more.
Restrepo follows a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan who are defending
a valley, Korgengal. It is said to be one of the most dangerous valleys
in the entire country and these brave men take fire every single day of
their brutal campaign. This is a riveting film and it is one of those
that you cannot shake. It gives you a glance into the absolute darkest
depths of modern warfare and just how demanding the fighting is both
physically and mentally. It is a film that gives you a rare look into
the horrors of war. And it is absolutely astounding.
Restrepo is shot at a very personal level. The camera never intrudes on the soldiers during their work, and thank God considering some of the harrowing things they go through in this movie. This film hardly even feels like a documentary in the sense of what we think of documentary today. It is filled with interviews, but the bulk of the movie is truly documenting the lives of these soldiers. We get to see all sides of the emotional spectrum that can be afflicted through trauma. We get to look at how different people cope with such horrors as are experienced in this film. And it is all through such respectful eyes. I never once thought, 'Wow, they should really stop filming this.' Every moment of the film feels so important and the fact that all this was so clearly and eloquently caught on camera is astounding.
The unequivocally greatest thing about this film is the fact that it has absolutely no political agenda. It really has no alternative motive other than telling the story of these incredibly brave soldiers. The film only seeks to honor the brave men who served our country in the most dangerous area imaginable. This film isn't for the political leaders responsible for the war. It isn't for the military commanders that send these soldiers into battle. This movie is for the soldiers themselves. It is a true soldier's film in every sense. It has a very stern focus on the individual. It makes such an important point out of this aspect that it could have possibly gone even further. There are a lot of men in this platoon and thus we don't get to know any one person particularly well. We get to know the platoon well as a whole and how each man interacts with his fellow soldiers and how they all deal with loss and tragedy. Each individual soldier in this movie is important and the movie strives to show how meaningful that is. It is a remarkably important aspect of the film.
You won't see many documentaries like this, and there's probably a good reason for this. The kind of footage captured in Restrepo isn't easy to get and you have to be just as brave as the soldiers themselves if you are to accompany them into battle to document their bravery. But thankfully when the opportunity to get such unforgettable footage arose, it was all put together extremely well. This is not an easy film to watch, but in the end it is so remarkably worth it.
It's a strange way to fight, without ever seeing the people you're
shooting at and who are shooting at you.
The strongest aspect about this viewpoint documentary is its lack of an opinionated narration. The filmmakers--who deserve commendations of their own for putting themselves in the line of fire for 15 months--let the soldiers and their activities tell the story, the firefights, patrols, attempts to communicate with the Afghans, mundane chores.
And they let the viewer judge for meaning.
It isn't possible, however, to truly capture a year and three months in 90 minutes. I did find it curious that so much interview footage was cut. If you see it on DVD, don't miss the interviews shown under special features. Perhaps the director-cameramen wanted to keep the ratio heavier on footage than interviews.
In one omitted interview, the unit Captain admits that he thought he was responsible for losing even one soldier. He also mentions that one of those killed was the unit Sergeant Major's son. There should have been some way to weave this into the story.
Another soldier says he hates the terms "you did what you had to do" because he doesn't think he really had to do it. Says he doesn't think God will greet him with a playful punch to the shoulder and say "you did what you had to do." It's powerful stuff, the included and the omitted footage. For the most part we fight now with volunteers. The mix of soldiers is a bit different than it was when there was a draft, but "Restrepo" shows that American forces still bring a wide range of backgrounds and reactions.
And it shows that most are still so young that we are still sending kids to do the jobs old men ask them to do. They are brave, fearful, obscene, committed for the wrong reasons, committed for right reasons, and committed for no reason at all.
It's a powerful view.
¨My personal low point? - Rock Avalanche, I saw a lot of professional
tough guys go weak in the knees.¨ Restrepo is one of the five pictures
nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars and it also won the Grand
Jury Prize in the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It's beautifully
directed and filmed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (writer of
The Perfect Storm). The huge success of this film and what separates it
from the hundreds of other war pictures is that Junger puts us right in
the middle of the action without any political agenda. He simply
decides to film these groups of soldiers who have been deployed to one
of the most dangerous locations in Afghanistan and lets us experience
their day to day lives without making any pro or anti war comments. We
are allowed to see a small glimpse of what the American soldiers have
to go through and how they live amongst the villagers. In a way Junger
allows the soldiers being filmed to tell their own story. We experience
what they are going through in this dangerous war zone and how they
interact with the local people. The cinematography is actually quite
astonishing and I really felt like I was there with the soldiers.
Restrepo made me appreciate even more last year's Oscar winning
picture: The Hurt Locker, because it showed me how real that film
actually was. At one point one of the soldiers even claims that no rush
is as high as being shot at in the middle of a war zone. War can be
addictive and it actually is for some soldiers.
The camera silently follows an American platoon that is being deployed to one of the most dangerous war zones in Afghanistan known as the Korangal Valley for a period of 15 months during 2007. The film begins while the platoon is arriving at the base and some of the soldiers share their thoughts about beginning their service in such a dangerous zone. We follow these soldiers as they live in tents in the middle of a valley where danger is eminent. They have to experience gun fights almost every day, and at the same time they have to adapt to the environment. When they are not fighting, we see the soldiers digging for protection; we see them burning their own feces, and just goofing around while they wait for next gunfight to take place. A day without action is nonexistent in the Korangal Valley. It is during one of these gunfights that one of the soldiers is mortally wounded, his name was Restrepo and the rest of the soldiers decide to build a resistance camp named O.P. Restrepo on his behalf. Restrepo changed the entire mood of the soldiers and they were ready to have their revenge. At the same time that the soldiers have to fight off the Taliban they also try to improve their relations with the locals who have a difficult time accepting the Americans (especially after they kill one of their cows).
The movie isn't pro or anti war; it simply places the camera in the middle of the action and lets us experience what is going on. No one's opinion about War is going to change: those who favor Americans involvement in Afghanistan will still do so after watching this documentary and those who don't will still feel the same because the directors don't try to manipulate us into thinking the way they do. There aren't any personal opinions about politics or war; it's all about experiencing what these soldiers have to go through every day whether or not they actually understand what they are fighting for. Some of my favorite parts of the documentary were the scenes where the Captain meets with the local villagers and tries to make allies out of them and the Rock Avalanche operation. The Captain really doesn't have a clue of the way the villagers think and goes the wrong way about trying to convince them to help the Americans. The Rock Avalanche Operation was really intense and was the climatic point of the film. I really loved the interviews with the soldiers with the camera closing-up on their faces (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly style). Restrepo is a really good and memorable documentary that will stay with you for days. It is only 90 minutes long so it is really worth your time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
don't get me wrong...the American soldiers did their soldiering
well...the reality of what happens in the field was
fantastic...interestingly, the movie dispels any illusions of high tech
capability/applicability in the conditions of the valley...they sure
did a lot of shooting without hitting anything...OK, it was covering
more interestingly, there was a total disconnect between the military and the villagers...a lack of respect, sensitivity and cultural understanding...you just don't speak like the soldiers did to the elders - zero respect with a we-tell-you attitude...and the soldiers didn't get point about the cow - we'll give you its weight in rice - you've got to be kidding? ... and they "knew" it was the elders' sons who were shooting at them...so like, shooting back will win hearts and minds?
oh yes, the 'end' goal was to put a road in...i really wonder whether anyone local wanted it
but give the US soldiers their due...they stuck it out and did what they were ordered.
After living (because "experiencing" is too weak a word here) this film
for the last 2 & 1/2 hours (the DVD extras are equal to the feature) I
will not be able to see another combat film for a very very long time.
What Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington have captured with this doc may be the final word about soldiers in combat & their thoughts afterword.
Afghanistan has been called a place "where dynasties go to die". The men shown here mostly don't give a flying f**k about history or politics. All they are concerned about is getting one day closer to the end of their 15 month deployment in the most dangerous on Earth AND the guys on either side of them.
This is most clear-eyed view of fighting I've seen since (the excellent) "Gunner Palace". Junger/Hetherington put their own asses on the line getting their footage & wisely kept completely out of their own picture. It drags at times because it shows that fighting is about burning their own human waste, building dirt barriers & killing time before the next kill --a kill they rarely see. The interviews interlaced among the field footage are as riveting as the fighting.
BUT make no mistake the fighting is as hellaciously intense as "Black Hawk Down" & "...Ryan". However J/H pull back from the gore. There are PG-13 movies which are more graphic in their violence. The real "graphic" parts of this film are the emotions in the faces & the eyes of the men. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out what comes first: the man inside or the soldier outside.
Buy the DVD. The extras are huge.
It's inarguable that we need to support up the soldiers in Afghanistan.
It's the cliché in political speeches, but this film shows that this is
more than just a saying when given a human face and context. Restrepo
doesn't try and bluntly make the case that the conflict there that the
US is engaged in is really worth it, or that we should leave
immediately. The filmmakers let the soldiers speak for themselves, and
the situation tells much more about what's really going on there. The
ground troop that makes Restrepo- named after a much beloved fallen man
that died suddenly during a small attack- which is a fort on a hill
overlooking the valley, are all mostly kids who are in the army for one
reason or another (one of them, who gives the most background, came
from a hippie-family), and they are where they are and got to buck up
with the situation for the months into the year it goes on till they
We see some of the action, but if you're looking for the traditional war film please look elsewhere. This doesn't share the intensity of, say, last year's The Hurt Locker, but the film isn't on the same wavelength stylistically. Junger and Hetherington want these faces of the soldiers, and their experiences, to tell more than the visceral shocks that are shown on screen. Point in fact, there isn't a whole lot of action on screen, either because, logically, it would be difficult for the already in-grave-danger cameraman to get it on film (most of all that Rocky Mountain Ridge episode that everyone's haunted by), or that the US Army wouldn't allow it to be shown in the film. It's here, in having the lack of what we expect to see in a war film, that it gathers its strength and resonance.
The film Restrepo is engaging and absorbing as a collection of moments and scenes, detailing what everyday life was like there, and sometimes it could be just plain dull, or on the 'downlow' as it were. We see the dealings the army tries to make with the locals, who are either too scared of the Taliban (one gets the sense they're like a mafia with bigger guns) or don't want to help since, frankly, the US ends up killing a few civilians here and there, many of whom have never seen US troops before. Or, on the flipside, those that do want to deal with the soldiers after a cow is caught in the outlying fence on the perimeter and is killed, which is valuable property to the natives. And we also get to see how these guys, mostly kids in their early 20's or younger, having some relaxing time when not being fired at or firing back.
To be sure, some sequences are intense, such as the Rocky Mountain Ridge tale which has the soldiers being interviewed still unable to handle with the casualties and how they were surrounded by the Afghan forces. But what one walks away from this film, shot in the Korangal with straightforward, sobering shots of soldiers doing what they do, and with telling interviews shot much later when they were in Italy, is how they weathered the chaos and did accomplish something there with the fort (albeit later abandoned altogether in April 2010). It's extraordinary to see it so up close, and to put the human face on it. The audience, however they feel about the conflict currently (from the looks of things Obama's keeping soldiers there for longer stretches until "it" is "won"), get a fresh perspective and can walk away with their own conclusions. That, and those haunted faces of the soldiers themselves, who in profile have that stare in their eyes, sometimes more-so than others depending on when talking about what, and knowing that look may be there for the rest of their lives.
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